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Game Reviews

‘Halo Wars 2’ Review – King of the (mole) hill

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Real Time Strategy is a long running and much-respected genre in the pantheon on gaming. Titles like StarCraft, Total War, and Company of Heroes all have massive followings and rank highly on many lists which depict gaming’s all-time greatest achievements.  It’s easy to find commonalities between the most illustrious RTS games, from general concepts to intrinsic mechanics, all of the series mentioned above share many features, but ask a console gamer to point out something that most RTS games have in common and they’ll likely point to the fact that they’re pretty my exclusively found on PC. Time and time again developers have tried to port the RTS experience to home consoles, but the majority of attempts have floundered, mostly resulting in nothing but subpar disappointments. In 2004 Microsoft attempted to succeed where all else had failed by enlisting fabled developer Ensemble Studios–creators of the much renowned RTS series Age of Empires–to create a console exclusive RTS for their Xbox 360 platform. The fruit of their labors, titled Halo Wars, launched in 2009 to moderately high critical praise, earning it the title of “best all-time console RTS” in the eyes of many fans and journalists alike. Unfortunately, Halo Wars turned out to be Ensemble’s swansong, as the company folded not long after its release, causing their Halo spinoff to lay dormant for many years. Now in the hands of 343 Industries and co-developers Creative Assembly, Halo Wars 2 is primed and ready to pick up where its forerunner left off.

The events of the original Halo Wars took place 21 years prior to those of Halo: Combat Evolved, and the game concluded with the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire entering cryo-sleep. Skip ahead 28 years, right past the events of all five mainline Halo titles,  and we arrive at the starting point of Halo Wars 2. Awoken from their slumber and completely unaware of the result of the Human-Covenant war, the Spirit of Fire’s crew–including Captain James Cutter and Professor Anders–are flung directly into conflict. The first thing you’ll take note of when playing Halo Wars 2 is how fantastic the game’s cutscenes look. Amazing facial animation, great voice acting, and all around immaculate presentation set the stage for what should be an epic space opera. Much of your first hour of play will be spent watching Blur Studio’s stunning CGI, and while enjoyable, the cutscenes unfortunately set a standard for story telling that the rest of the game simply cannot uphold. Cutscenes are few and far between after the game’s introductory chapters, leaving most of the remaining dialog to be dispensed during pre-mission loading screens. The dialog during the cutscenes is crisp and delivered with emotion, but the rest of the game’s dialog is slow, disjointed, and lacks enthusiasm. The game’s narrative, much like its voice acting, is inconsistent. Early scenes shed light on an interesting setting and a formidable foe, but the story quickly loses traction. Without entering spoiler territory let’s just say that the game’s ending is akin to Halo 2’s, meaning there’s a cliff, and you’ll be hanging off of it, unsatisfied, with proper resolution nowhere in sight.

Back in 2009 Ensemble Studios managed to create an RTS control scheme for the console controller that was simple yet intuitive. 343 Industries has taken their ground work and, well, simply retread over it. For better or worse, Halo Wars 2 acts and feels much like its predecessor, meaning that it’s easy to acclimate to, but the systems in place feel as limited now as they did 8 years ago. The D-Pad acts as a shortcut menu, allowing the player to quickly jump between bases and units, but getting the camera over to an area of the map where you currently don’t have friendly units or structures is tedious.  There are multiple ways to select units, both those currently on-screen and those out of your immediate view, but it can still be a hassle to divvy up your squad or select certain units quickly in the heat of battle. The game’s control systems function, and for those who have little-to-no experience with PC RTS they may even seem above average, but players who have any prior experience with the genre won’t be able to shake the feeling that their control over the battlefield is limited.

Unlike its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 will launch simultaneously on both the Xbox One and PC, but it’s clear as day that this game was designed first and foremost as a console experience. Base construction locations are pre-determined, there is next-to-no tactical approach to the creation of additional structures, and resource gathering is essentially automated. There are an interesting amount of units for both the Human and Alien sides, including some all new ones making their debut in Halo Wars 2, but again, as with most aspects of the game, micro-management of units is limited. The game employs a rock-paper-scissors approach seen in many RTS titles, but the issue is Halo Wars 2 is so rigid in its rule set that it doesn’t allow for nearly as much customization in its approach when compared to contemporary RTS games. All aspects of the gameplay experience are at least serviceable, but none truly excel, leaving it to often feel as if the game is lacking substance.

The game’s campaign features a total of 12 levels which can be tackled solo or cooperatively. Playing on the Normal or Heroic difficulty settings will result in many of the missions only lasting around 25-35 minutes, meaning the campaign should last you between 6-8 hours on your first playthrough. The missions themselves are quite lackluster and feel formulaic rather quickly, as there are only a few scenarios, most of which get repeated multiple times. There are missions where you have to defend your predetermined bases for a set amount of time from waves of enemies; missions where you’re playing a game of Domination with the A.I. where each side is attempting to hold certain plots on the map; missions where you must simply explore outwards and defeat all foes, and a mission of tower defense, complete with arrows on the mini-map showing the routes enemies will take. The Halo aesthetic lends itself well to the game’s world, as sights and sounds emit a familiar and classic vibe, but very few of the levels actually stand apart from each other, making the experience a forgettable blur.

On the multiplayer front Halo Wars 2 has a decent suite of modes, and those looking to get some extra practice can hop into the Skirmish playlist and do battle with A.I. opponents until they’re ready to test their mettle against human foes. When making the jump into PVP players have the option to choose between 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 battles across several different match types, including the typical Deathmatch and Domination variations. Where the game will find trouble is in keeping its audience’s attention, as the over-simplified RTS experience doesn’t exactly correlate with tremendous replayability. Extremely restrictive build paths and a shallow pool of tactical options means that most multiplayer modes will get stale rather quickly. The Blitz mode, which combines card-based strategy elements into the RTS fold is a great addition, and easily the game’s best innovation, but whether or not this mode alone will be enough to keep Halo Wars 2’s multiplayer afloat remains to be seen.

Many will argue that Halo Wars 2 can proudly attest to being the greatest RTS game to ever grace a console, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that sentiment, but at the same time, I’d say that anyone who’s making that claim is clearly trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. Sure, Halo Wars 2 may trump its console-based competition, but when said competition is mostly comprised of disappointing and subpar titles, is that really an achievement worth bragging about? When comparing Halo Wars 2  to its PC exclusive brethren its lack of depth, overly simplistic systems, and shallow design philosophy quickly become apparent. Strip away its stunning cut scenes and its Halo setting and it’s exposed as not much more than a merely average RTS game that’s clearly being held back by the fact that it’s been tethered to a platform that has never, and will never be able to squeeze the full potential out of a Real Time Strategy title.

"When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives." - Eddard Stark

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Brent Middleton

    February 17, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Well written sir.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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